Viewport: Conquering the Unknown
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Air & Space.
Almost every object in the National Air and Space Museum represents a first step into unknown territory: the first airplane, the first aircraft to fly faster than sound, the first spacecraft to carry astronauts to the moon and back. Through scientific inquiry and patient engineering, all of them transformed mystery into history. But this special issue of Air & Space is dedicated to mysteries that haven’t been solved, and these pages offer many intriguing puzzles.
Confronting the unknown is a universal human experience; we all do things for the first time. When I was a brand-new lieutenant flying transports, the instructors loved to put us in situations that would test us. I was lucky enough to have joined the Marine Corps at a time when many of the instructors were enlisted men who had been trained as pilots during the build-up to World War II. The Navy called them Naval Aviation Pilots, or NAPs. Most had years of combat experience.
The instructors had the same kind of practical approach to problem-solving described in the piece on the C-133 Cargomaster. I got a kick out of reading about the loadmasters’ shortcuts; we had a few of our own. When the tricycle-gear Douglas R5D (in civilian life, the DC-4) was loaded, the back end would sink, so the airplane came with a vertical bar to prop up the tail. Our criterion for determining whether the load put the center of gravity in the right place was that with two engines running at 1,000 rpm, the crew chief could remove the tail bar without having to knock it out with a wheel chock. I remember times when I’d hear the crew chief back there banging and banging on that tail bar.
One thing I learned from the NAPs was that if you got yourself into a situation, you were the one who had to get yourself out. When I was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina, I flew the R4Q, better known as the C-119 Flying Boxcar. We could parachute supplies through a pair of doors in the belly, called paratainer doors.
I know for a fact that you can get 24 cases of whiskey in the space between the paratainer doors and the floor boards. One year for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, our squadron was sent to get refreshments. Back from the shopping trip, we landed on a runway covered with five inches of snow, and the paratainer doors broke open. My job was to figure out how to get the refreshments off the runway. Since no guidelines existed for this activity, I was glad the NAPs had taught me to think on my feet. Luckily, it was a Saturday night with no traffic, and I managed to get all the boxes in the Follow Me truck. The mystery was how many of those bottles were unbroken. We had a very fine Birthday Ball.
Having gone through the Marine Corps training at Quantico and then joining my first squadron with the NAPs, I learned that life will toss you a few mysteries, and that the best way to accomplish a goal or figure out what’s important isn’t always “by the book.”
J.R. Dailey is the director of the National Air and Space Museum.